Fluxible conference brings UX world to Waterloo Region Anthony Reinhart August 20, 2012 Startups MC – I think it’s critical to the success of the products that are being built in any community, but certainly in this community. It makes the difference between an interesting technology and a great product. If you take a look at the high-profile companies who are doing work here, UX is integral to the success of their product. I mean, Google is doing so much mobile stuff here in Kitchener-Waterloo, with UX people working here; the products are not imaginable without that. RIM, as they move toward BB10 and wanting to make this next leap into the future, they need UX; it’s critical. They acquired an amazing design consultancy and they already had an amazing set of designers and researchers. It’s critical to their success, but it’s critical to the success of the companies in places like the Communitech Hub or the Accelerator Centre. Take a company like Sortable, who were recently acquired. We know Alex at Sortable; we worked with him at Primal. Their success was, to a large extent, technologically driven, but to an equal extent, it was based on a UI that actually delivered meaningful experiences to their users. They would not have been able to have the success they’ve had without devoting that time and energy to it. I’m going to say right now – and I don’t think Alex will mind this – but Alex Black at Sortable was the very first person to sign up for Fluxible. I don’t think we’ve even told Alex that yet. We’ve got to get a present for him. But what I’m getting at is, Alex is a hardcore CS person, but he realizes, as do the other folks at Sortable, that user experience is critical to their success, and they went out of their way to make sure that it would happen. BBB – It’s the difference, as Mark said, between building a product and putting something out there and seeing adoption. User experience is all about delighting people and getting them to just absolutely love this thing that you’ve built. So yeah, it is essential to this region. And we’re at a moment in time, I think, where we’re going to have to sink or swim, which touches again on ‘why now?’ for this conference. It’s not an exaggeration to say that just about every week, we get an inquiry from a company in town who is looking for a user-experience designer, and they’re really, really hard to find. The schools in town are waking up to this opportunity, and there have been some really neat programs created, say, at UW in the last couple of years. But the reality is, we don’t have any academic programs in town that really turn out people who can hit the ground running, and that’s probably one factor in why there’s a bit of a shortage of talented people here. It usually means trying to hire someone from outside of town, so this, hence, touches on another one of our goals for Fluxible: to get the eyes of the world on K-W. Everyone’s heard of Waterloo Region, but they probably have no idea that there is a growing and thriving UX community, so we want everyone to look and go, ‘Oh wow, there was an amazing conference that happened there’, and ‘Wow, look what happened’. So, when local companies are trying to hire for these roles, they will hopefully have just a little bit of an easier time convincing people to contemplate this region as a place to get a job. Q – Can you each give me a brief bio of your UX career? BBB – We’re so old, this will take forever. MC – Yeah, when I started is kind of a fuzzy place. I started in the early ‘90s. I had my own design company that started off being print design; then I got into doing things with MacroMind Director and HyperCard early on; and then when the web came along I started doing web work. I did my first paying web work in 1994, and by the end of the decade I was exclusively doing that stuff. I was a partner in a consultancy called Convivia Interaction Design. We were focused totally on user experience. And then in 2000, I went to work for one of my clients, a company called Maptuit, and stayed there for a few years. I worked for another few years at a company called Platform Computing, doing grid computing solutions, and I was designing stuff. They were recently acquired by IBM, and Maptuit was recently acquired by Telogis. I wanted to be in Waterloo, though, and those companies were in the Toronto area. The commute was not fun. I was having trouble finding stuff down here, and finally came here to work for a while with Primal Fusion, which is where Bob and I met, and for the last few years I’ve been working at Karos Health. At Karos we do health care software, and obviously there is a human factor involved in that area. Oh, and I help Bob with uxWaterloo. We rouse rabble. Or, I rouse rabble and Bob calms them down again. I’ve taught a couple of design courses that are sort of related to user experience at the universities, one at Waterloo and one at Laurier. Q – So you’ve spent most of your career as a designer? MC – Yes, absolutely. Q – Okay. Bob? BBB – Similar trajectory, but it comes from a different place. I got started in the early ‘90s as a co-op Waterloo student. My degree is in English, rhetoric and professional writing, and I actually still remember the exact moment when I started to step in this direction. It was my very first day on a co-op term in Ottawa at a technical company, and as an English RPW student, the jobs at the time were in technical writing, and that’s what the job was. Literally, on that first day, I started doing some technical writing, having to explain some piece of software, and I remember just kind of throwing my hands up in the air and going, ‘This is ridiculous.’ And I walked over to the developers and just had a conversation about, ‘Can we change the way this software is designed and functioning, because if we do this, then we don’t have to write any of this stuff that I’ve been asked to write right now.’ So for me, that was the light-bulb moment. It was like, ‘Wow, if you have to explain to someone how a product works, the design has failed.’ MC – Troublemaker. BBB – Yep, totally. So that’s the story of my career. I always insinuated myself into the product design from that very day forward, and it didn’t take long before I was basically full time doing user-interface design. User experience wasn’t a term that existed until maybe eight years ago, something like that. MC – ‘Insinuate’ is an interesting word. I’ve always insinuated myself into development teams; the design viewpoint and mindset is an integral part of it. Q – So did you just pick up the design skills along the way, then? BBB – Yes. A lot of reading, a lot of workshops, going to conferences. The best way, though, is to get yourself a job where you get to work next to people who are awesome designers to begin with, so that was kind of what I did. In terms of a quick summary of where I’ve worked, I had my own consultancy in the ‘90s for a while. Things got interesting when I went to Belgium for a couple of years and worked for Sony, doing interface design there. It was in Brussels, just around the corner from NATO. It was so cool. Then I came back here. The reason I came back was that I had an opportunity to work with the team at Quarry and help establish their interaction design and usability group. So, it was a new service area at the organization. I was there for eight years doing that; a lot of fun and I learned a lot. Then I went to Primal to head up some design there. As Mark said, that’s where we met. Currently I’m a partner at ArtBarn here in town. In terms of other connections to the UX community, we’ve talked about uxWaterloo, so I started that about seven years ago, and also have done a fair bit of speaking at conferences around the world, and have contributed chapters to a few books on user experience, particularly about how to do user customer research and translate that into your product design. So that’s a whirlwind tour of me. MC – Sort of a theme throughout this conversation has been that you talk about university and going to school and learning something there, but the cliché is that the really important thing you do is learn how to learn. And everything that Bob and I have experienced in our careers reinforces that. School was a starting point, but your career is defined by how you learn and what you grow into over the course of it, not by where you started. So, you really can do anything. I shouldn’t be doing surgery, though. BBB – I’ve always said for me, the most important attribute of a successful designer, but frankly a successful-almost-anybody, is curiosity. MC – Why do you say that, Bob? Sorry . . .